Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Are too many students going to college?

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article asking Are too many students going to college? Having recently taught some large lecture classes in physics for non-scientists, I am quite interested in this question. For related discussion, see Higher education and human capital.

Here are some answers provided by Charles Murray, our favorite education curmudgeon, to the questions asked in the article.

Who should and shouldn't go to college?

Charles Murray: It has been empirically demonstrated that doing well (B average or better) in a traditional college major in the arts and sciences requires levels of linguistic and logical/mathematical ability that only 10 to 15 percent of the nation's youth possess. That doesn't mean that only 10 to 15 percent should get more than a high-school education. It does mean that the four-year residential program leading to a B.A. is the wrong model for a large majority of young people.

[Gee... how would you empirically demonstrate this? You'd have to have some method for actually "measuring" cognitive ability. But surely that's not possible -- only in science fiction! Why, the things you could accomplish if that were possible...]

Economists have cited the economic benefits that individual students derive from college. Does that still apply?

Murray: A large wage premium for having a bachelor's degree still exists. For everything except degrees in engineering and the hard sciences, I submit that most of that premium is associated with the role of the B.A. as a job requirement instead of anything that students with B.A.'s actually learn. The solution to that injustice—and it is one of the most problematic social injustices in contemporary America—is to give students a way to show employers what they know, not where they learned it and how long it took them. In other words, substitute certifications for the bachelor's degree.

Who should pay for students to attend college?

Murray: Ideally, students themselves. If that means delaying college for a few years to save money, so much the better—every college professor has seen the difference in maturity and focus between kids straight out of high school and those who have worked or gone into the military for a few years. The ideal is unattainable. But somehow we've got to undermine the current system whereby upper-middle-class children go to college without having to invest in it.

I particularly like the comment below from an insightful (see, especially, his comments on calculus) UT Austin student (Plan II?).

Too many are attending and I agree full-heartedly with Mr. Murray that only 10% of college-aged individuals should be attending University.

I saw firsthand the results of this phenomenon deeply entrenched in the lecture halls of my particular University and was perplexed at the levels of incompetence and lack of passion towards subject material shown by many of my fellow students. I wondered if anyone else shared my particular insights and was relieved to find Mr. Murray and his supporters waiting for me with open arms, telling me, "you are not alone".

I don't doubt the value of a hard science or engineering education, the students who remain in those fields are for the most part, fairly smart, and whose work and learning will benefit our society. (Though there are too many unqualified individuals who think being a doctor is a cool and easy job where you make a lot of money with little work) Those students are quickly weeded out, as should be.

But in the less challenging fields such as most of the liberal arts, business, communications, I found the lack of intellectual spirit in my fellow students disturbing. The most common responses I encountered when asking about their choice of major and their reason for being at this particular school, their responses were as follows. Degree=Good Job. Football! (a valid point, as our team is the underdog this year in the BCS Championship game). Party=Drunk=Its COLLEGE!. Not one intellectually stimulated response about the faculty and resources offered by one of the top research universities in the nation. They had no passion for their subjects, they waltzed into class with glazed eyes, and danced out with a degree. Most have never checked out a book from the library. Spark-notes are their best friend.

I was stifled by the inadequate writing ability of many of my peers when I reviewed and edited their papers. Some of them could not even write at a middle school level, much less a college level. At a top 50 University, nonetheless. I can't even begin imagine how it is at lesser schools.

An unfortunate trend at my University is that a great majority of students will choose their classes simply based on the "logic" of pick-a-prof and grade distributions. The most popular ones are the ones that give lots of A's. Few are actually interested in the topic of choice, and the unlucky ones get dropped into hard classes they don't want, skulking, sleeping, or skipping class entirely stifling the learning environment of people who are actually there to learn. Its also sad for Professors as well, because the truly excellent ones are browbeaten and criticized for their inability to gift A's onto undeserving students.

Grade inflation is through the roof here. I went to a challenging prep school where my best writings and most carefully thought out essays would usually only earn me high B's, with the occasional A. I thought University would be a challenge, but to my dismay, it has been anything but. I realized it when I quickly spat out some honestly dreadful essays for Philosophy and English Literature because I was in a rush, only to be rewarded with a sparkling 100 and rave comments. Really? Easy A's. Though according to most of my fellow students, these classes were incredibly difficult, the TA and professor were unfair graders, gave out too much reading, etc. Horrifying.

In Mathematics and Quantitative sciences it is the same story, though even our "honors students" seem ill prepared to handle the rigors of college level mathematics. Calculus is dumbed down so that the regular student can succeed. But even then, its still widely failed class even in its simplified state But that bodes ill, many people can "do" calculus, but few can understand its implications and applications. I can "do calculus" in the terms that I can memorize the concepts, complete practice problems, and repeat the ordeal on the test. But I can only apply its implications to the simplest of physical and economic problems. I'm not good enough to really UNDERSTAND calculus. I know that. But my ability to "do" calculus earns me an A+ at this University. And it really should not.

Too many kids are at college wasting their time. They are not happy with their studies, not happy with the debt they are piling on their heads to attend, but happy with the football team, and the plans for the weekend. They are here for the wrong reasons.

In physics 101 last quarter I gave A's or B's to almost 60 percent of the class, which I regarded as very lenient grading. (I guess if this were Brown or Stanford I could have given all A's with just a few punitive B's for the laggards at the bottom ;-) But nevertheless I had to field dozens of emails from aggrieved students complaining about their "low" grades! It makes me wonder whether everyone else (i.e., other professors, high school teachers, etc.) is engaged in grade inflation? It's certainly the easy way out -- I'm sure you get higher student evaluations if you tip off during the term that you're an easy grader. Who is holding the line?


Steveman said...

That's why everyone should go to a school like Caltech...

Dan said...

Can't really argue with it. I've seen the same at my university. Maybe everyone should read _Shop Class as Soulcraft_ in their senior year of high school. I haven't read it myself but it's on my list (right after Intro to Metric Spaces... :P)

Liam said...

"Degree=Good Job. Football! ... Party=Drunk=Its COLLEGE!."

Heh, reminds me of Fleming house.

matt said...

As a graduate of a public high school and a CS undergraduate student at a public university, many of my assigned grades seem to be higher than they should be according to the instructors' own grading policies. It's not limited to intro/liberal arts courses - I've seen it in third- and fourth-year CS courses.

It seriously makes me question the value of getting a degree given the low standards, and makes me regret not choosing a school with a more challenging program.

A few CS professors post itemized grades of all students. I was always surprised to find how low other students' grades were.

anon said...

One thing is certain: Charles Murray, BA history PhD sociology, should never have gone to college.

anon said...

Another thing is certain: what Steve does for a living is satanic.

anon said...

The problem is grades.

National standardized tests are enough.

But they would put criminals like Steve out of business.

When I had to TA for my PhD I gave As to everyone.

Anyone who gives grades or works for grades should be in jail.

Ralph said...

There is some research in the UK which shows that vocational and science degrees for men and women pay for themselves in terms of higher earnings. Arts degrees for women pay for themselves, but not in the case of men.

Also most studies into the economic benefits of degrees are worthless, in my experience, and a waste of taxpayer money in that they fail to control for the social background of students. The latter is crucial, and for the following reasons.

People who go to university tend to come from stable and/or middle class family backgrounds. Plus people from this sort of background tend to earn more anyway (i.e. regardless of whether they get a degree). Thus studies which fail to distinguish between the “background effect” and the “degree effect” are worthless.

To do a quick check on whether a study has made this distinction, do a word search for the phrase “control for”. If it’s not there, chances are the study is a waste of ink and paper.

anon said...

Charles Murray seems not to know that there is no correlation between college grades and SAT scores past the Freshman year, and even then it is trivial.

The problem is grades don't measure intelligence and the SAT does.

LondonYoung said...

I'd like to point out, on the side, that probably not enough college age kids in the world go to college. But probably too many in the U.S.

Take the better kids from a cut of those who missed university in India or China and mix them with your U Orgeon Phys 101, and perhaps one or two kids you have now would pass, while you gave the Indians/Chinese A's with enthusiam.

This is a cold reality of globalization. American kids are spoiled (comparatively) and waste what they have.

Steve Hsu said...

Anon: I wouldn't be surprised if one could show that for certain majors (physics, engineering, philosophy, perhaps a rigorous English major) almost no one who graduates with GPA above a certain threshold (say, 3.3) had an SAT below 85th or 90th percentile. This data should come from a big state university where there is a large range in SAT. I don't know if Murray has actually done this study, but I bet he has (albeit in the pre-grade inflation era).

anon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anon said...

Steve's own stats on SATs of various UT majors shows that the difference in SATs is too small to explain the low correlation of SATs and grades.

The explanation is

grades measure pushiness.

the SAT, ACT, etc measure intelligence.

In almost every other country on earth bachelors degrees are conferred and the quality of the degree is determined by performance on cummulative exams---one or two.

In the US the quality of the degree is determined by as many as three midterms and a final and homework, and more and more bull shit.

Death to America!

anon said...


anon said...

Steve has a penchant for reification.

some examples:

"probability" in his post on evolution



and now college.

There is no percentage that should or shouldn't go to college. It depends on what college is. For Steve college is more than just a word used in a certain way which can change.

College is or is becoming or can be what high school used to be.

Eric said...

It is certainly true that multiple exams create perverse incentives. Final exams covering the entire four years are far better, at least if the ideal is indeed to gain knowledge.

Dawg_from_Hell said...

"Charles Murray seems not to know that there is no correlation between college grades and SAT scores past the Freshman year, and even then it is trivial."

How do you compare grades across universities? Isn't a 3 in (say) the Harvard Math program very different from a 3 in U of Oregon? And then there's the restriction of range within particular programs. How is this resolved to get a meaningful answer?

Steve Hsu said...

SAT--GPA correlations are tricky for many reasons, including that students self-select by major, so after freshman year the courses taken are very different.

But Murray is stating something weaker -- that there is a minimum threshold below which one can't master a particular curriculum.

Take a major like chemistry. I'm sure there are a broad range of students who start out as chemistry majors. What if it could be shown (at a particular university) that among students who actually completed a chemistry degree with a 3.0 GPA, almost none had SATs below the 85th percentile? Or, more precisely, that the a priori probability of graduating with GPA > 3.0 goes to zero for SATs below some threshold.

A simple model for college success is that GPA depends on two independent variables: SAT (cognitive ability) and conscientiousness. I suspect one might find that below a particular SAT-M threshold even the most conscientious student can't graduate with a 3.0 in physics.

anon said...

You're right there is restriction of range at elite schools, but at schools like UT I expect though I do not know that SAT range is not so restricted.

That is, my guess is 1% of UT students scored in the 99th percentile, 50 % >= the 50th percentile, etc.

But the no correlation after Freshman year is true within universities too.

Oh and don't get me wrong, if there were a correlation this would validate grades not the SAT!

anon said...

If the quality of the bachelors were determined by one or two objective cummulative exams I guarantee that the correlation of SAT scores and the "class of the degree" would be > .8.

Dawg_from_Hell said...

Yeah, Steve! That is the precise point that I was making. It's futile to try and ascertain any meaning from the the zero correlation value that anon's been spouting. To compound the problem, you also lose granularity with the American grading system (not a scale of 0-100 like you have in certain countries) and grade inflation.

What would be much more interesting is seeing how SAT scores correlate with subject GRE scores (a good barometer of one's grasp of specialized knowledge), which would eliminate many of the problems that Steve mentions.

zarkov01 said...

How did we come to have such a large fraction of high school students going on to college; it wasn't always this way? The roots of increased college attendance go back to the Vietnam War and student deferments. Avoiding the war was paramount for many young adults at that time, approximately 1965-1968. This coincides with a dramatic increase in college enrollment. To be sure, some of the increase was the baby boom kids growing up. This paper provides evidence: Then came the draft lottery in 1969. With the war winding down and the lottery we would expect the old norms to re-establish, but they didn't. Here's what happened. In 1970 the US Supreme Court decided the Briggs v. Duke power case. The court held that absent a business necessity an employer could not use IQ or aptitude tests for recruiting or promotion because of disparate impact on minorities. This decision motivated employers to take the easy way out: let colleges do the filtering for them. This opened the floodgates to increased attendance. Then the grievance industry took hold on campus giving us black studies, women studies, Hispanic studies etc. These courses are generally easy. Since many students were unprepared to college level work, grade inflation took hold.

We don't need to have 50% or more high school students going on to college, something like 5% would be more appropriate. Otherwise we are wasting people's time, and a lot of money. Good high schools would serve us much better.

Steve Hsu said...

For those that are interested, here's a recent overview of research on how well the SAT predicts college (and later) success. Once various factors like restriction of range are accounted for the correlations aren't that small. However, I'd still like to see an analysis that directly tests Murray's threshold hypothesis.

Finally, the last study reported, Ramist et al. (1994), shows larger corrections and higher correlations than the other studies in the table. Data in this study are corrected for restriction of range, grading standards, and the unreliability of first-year grades. The investigators report an average uncorrected SAT plus HSR correlation with first-year GPA of .48, which becomes .71 when corrected for restriction of range and differential grading standards, and, finally, .76 when corrected also
for criterion unreliability.


In models containing only preadmission measures for both men and women, the SAT, high school rank, SES, and being Asian American all were positively and significantly related to postcollege income (R= .19). The SAT was more strongly related to income than was high school rank.


rp said...

interviewig top college grads for finance jobs, my expectations for strong interview performance depend on (a) GPA above roughly 3.2 (at an ivy or equivalent) and (b) the higher the sat's the better. right in line with what i think steve's expectations would be. couple of related points. i see zero (maybe even negative) correlation between interview performance (brainteaser-type) and gpa above threshold. also, re subject matter tests - i maxed the sat and general gre but got a middling score on the gre subject matter test - i had a 3.7 gpa in physics from an ivy but did only so-so on the physics gre (probably lower than most others in my phd program). then i did very well in the phd, ie interviewing at top schools for professorships (eg harvard) without doing a postdoc right after graduation (might be because i ended up in a chemistry lab for research and subsequent job search, and everyone knows chemists arent that smart). anyway, my experience - subject matter test out of college is not a good test of ability. i remember a bunch of particle physics questions i had no clue about, and overall a focus on facts vs problem solving in the gre. maybe as well a problem with differing curricula across schools - but would we want to standardize?

anon said...

I thought it was everyone knows physicists aren't that smart.

Dawg_from_Hell said...


Do check out this link, where it is indicated that the Subject GRE score for subjects like Math is the best single predictor of doctoral attainment:

"then i did very well in the phd, ie interviewing at top schools for professorships (eg harvard) without doing a postdoc right after graduation (might be because i ended up in a chemistry lab for research and subsequent job search, and everyone knows chemists arent that smart)."

Data is not the plural of anecdote. Further, if you changed your discipline, your subject GRE score perhaps did (correctly) reflect your inadequate grasp of the material tested. I can comment on the Math Subject GRE, which I think is a fairly good test - I mean, you need to have some conceptual clarity when it comes to abstract algebra, point set topology, and real analysis to get by.
It's obvious that universities get this as some fairly elite Math intensive graduate programs look at subject GRE scores in a big way.

BobW said...

twit wrote: "One thing is certain: Charles Murray, BA history PhD sociology, should never have gone to college."
Murray said that he took all of the quantitative data analysis courses offered at MIT when he was there. He is a scholar who is recognized for his brilliance and ability. A short bio:

LondonYoung said...

zarkov01 - good catch on the Griggs case. It is now actually illegal in the U.S. to promote someone to management simply because they are more intelligent - a rather high barrier of evidence is called for to prove that the higher intelligence is necessary for the job. This touches on quite a few themes of this blog.

This is also recently important politically given the President's appointment of Justice Sotomayor with her views on Ricci v. DeStefano. Since many of us believe that employers gain advantage by promoting the more intelligent they should logically seek ways around the likes of Sotomayor.

BobW said...

I had a chat with Charles Murray two weeks ago. I asked him what kinds of reactions he had gotten from his articles on education. He said they were overwhelmingly (and unexpectedly) positive. People wrote him saying that they had wasted years and money by going to college and were often not happy with the experience. Not surprisingly, he said that teachers did not react with the same sentiment.

FWIW, Murray has advocated the removal of the SAT and suggested that it be replaced with subject specific achievement tests.

This may also be interesting, in connection with the grade comments here:
"Historically, an IQ of 115 or higher was deemed to make someone “prime college material.” That range comprises about 16 percent of the population. Since 28 percent of all adults have BAs, the IQ required to get a degree these days is obviously a lot lower than 115. But the cognitive ability required to cope with genuine college-level material has not changed. A recent study of “college readiness” by the College Board asked what SAT scores were required to have a 65 percent chance of maintaining a 2.7 grade average in the freshman year in a sample of 41 major institutions that included both state universities and elite schools. The answer was a combined SAT Verbal and Math score of 1180, a score that only about ten percent of 18-year-olds could get if everyone took the SAT. Nor was this requirement inflated by the inclusion of the elite colleges in the sample-the difference in the benchmark scores for unselective and selective universities was a trivial 23 points."
[Down with the Four-Year College Degree! -- by Charles Murray, Cato Unbound, Lead Essay, October 6th, 2008

Steve Hsu said...


I'm curious how one goes from SAT percentile to percentile in the general population. In other words, what does the average SAT score of roughly 1000 translate into in terms of IQ? This number must be time-dependent, as the fraction of the population going to college, and taking the SAT, increases.

Steve Hsu said...

RP: Can you tell us a bit about why you left science for finance?

How do you feel about the brain drain into finance?

Sam said...

Certification tests are the best answer but our disparate impact laws essentially disallow them.

Via HBD Books, Boskop Man averaged an IQ of 149, or so some think:

BobW said...

SAT conversion works over a range, but does not hold beyond that. Frey and Detterman did a paper on this several years ago. I will copy some info from my notes below.

M. C. Frey: These scores were then correlated with the SAT scores obtained from school records for the 917 participants who had SAT scores reported. The correlation between SAT and general intelligence was .82. However, there was a nonlinear relationship between the two measures. When a squared component was added to the regression equation, the multiple correlation was .86. There is very obviously a substantial relationship between SAT and general intelligence to the extent that the SAT should be viewed as an intelligence test.

To convert SAT scores from 1996 through this year to an IQ score, Professor Douglas Detterman of Case Western Reserve University provides this formula: (.095 X SAT Math) + (.003 X SAT Verbal) + 50.241 = IQ

For SAT scores before 1996 -- before the "recentering," which raised the average SAT back to 500 -- Detterman provides this formula: (.126 X SAT Combined Score) - (.0000471 X SAT Combined Score X SAT Combined Score) + 40.063 = IQ.

Scholastic Assessment or g? The Relationship Between the Scholastic Assessment Test and General Cognitive Ability
Meredith C. Frey and Douglas K. Detterman
Psychological Science
Volume 15—Number 6

We developed an equation for predicting IQ from SAT scores in the Study 2 data set. The resulting equation includes SAT-M and SAT-V scores, in place of the total score, as neither the squared nor the cubic component of SAT added The standard error of prediction (SE p ) was 9.76. Although this stan-dard error is higher than what was obtained in Study 1, it is none-theless more accurate than the 11.4 one would expect estimating IQ using demographic variables. Part of the reason for the larger standard error is the restricted range of Study 2.
I have the Psychological Science paper, so I can tell you that the scatter plots are well behaved, but that the data from ASVAB vs. SAT total are not linear. The fit Frey used is not bad, but a better fit is possible and I think I have seen an equation that claims to be better.

anon said...

"He is a scholar who is recognized for his brilliance and ability."

By those within his field at most, and his field is populated exclusively by morons.

Anyone whose degrees are in history or poly sci or sociology or psychology should never have gone to college. Such departments should be closed.

BTW, Bob, "scholar" is a put down.

"Boskop Man averaged an IQ of 149, or so some think"

You sound like Bob W. He thinks IQ tests given to sub-Saharan Africans are meaningful.

anon said...

Also Bob, you should remember my SAT, GRE, GRE subject test scores, etc, were all higher than yours.

I have a strong suspicion Bob is from the South, and that like Charles Murray he keeps an Afghan dancing boy in his basement.

Am I right?

Steve Hsu said...

BobW, thanks for the information.

Re: SAT vs IQ, I seem to recall a very harsh criticism of Frey and Detterman by an ETS researcher who showed that using known results about recentering, the two formulae are inconsistent.

I was interested in whether the average SAT taker was closer to IQ 100 than, say, 110. It seems the F&D formulae give different results?

I once complained to you about the low quality of results in this field -- is this another example?

anon said...

Steve, couldn't you answer your question approximately if you only knew what percetage of high school students take the SAT in those states where the ACT isn't preferred?

Nanonymous said...

then i did very well in the phd, ie interviewing at top schools for professorships (eg harvard) without doing a postdoc right after graduation

If this was anywhere within the past two decades, I find it incredibly hard to believe. And even if it's true, you would one of like 10,000 interviewees.

Other than that, I agree that subjects tests are very poor indicator of ability. Every one of them has too much irrelevant material and relies too much on rot memorization (of course, open books exams are clear exception but this type of exams seem to have gone extinct in most places).

BobW said...

The scatter plot clearly shows that the majority of the IQ scores were above IQ 110.

I happen to think that the attempt to do a conversion is not impressive. The IQs computed from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery topped out at 130. I recall when the paper was given; at that time Frey was still a student. She was scheduled to give the last paper this year, but I decided to leave, since the afternoon papers were not of interest.

anon said...

"the conversion"

What a joke.

Spoken like someone who doesn't know that there is no difference between a test which its makers call an IQ test and a test which is an IQ test even though its makers do not call it that (officially), like someone without subtlety enough to ever understand that there is no difference ... like Bob W.

The SAT is an IQ test, period, period, period, period, ...

BobW said...


Congratulations. You have succeeded in making this blog so vile that it has reached my garbage bin. Given the acceptance of derogation in the comments area, I see no reason for me to read Steve's blog again.

Steve Hsu said...

BobW: Sorry about that.

Anon: Please try to be more civil with your comments. I would hate to have to censor comments here.

anon said...

I apologize sincerely to Bob W and anyone else I may have offended by my inability to spell.

rp said...

Steve: did wisconsin take you up the math building to show you the view? that was one of their big sells when i was there. re why i left academia, many reasons. most relevant to topics on your blog: it was very disillusioning to deal with the constraints in proposing a research program while interviewing. no creativity allowed - propose an extension of what you did as a grad student to have any credibility. i needed some serious equipment and so a $1mm startup budget which is a big deal in the academic world, and that kept coming up - departments were very risk averse and talked about the downside of hiring the wrong person. the candidates i was interviewing against who had done postdocs all proposed combinations of the work they did as grad students plus postdoc - ie 'laser medthod one plus laser method two!'. we seemed to be viewed as little versions of the professors we worked for, chosen to fill out the research portfolio of their particular department (every school asked: how will you compete for students with your advisor?). the worst part was that i didn't believe in the research program of my advisor - it was exciting grad school work for someone wanting to do some physics applied to biological systems, but it wasn't going anywhere and the field had devolved into a bunch of older professors pushing their particular approach to structural biology problems when none of the methods was going to to be useful to solving more than niche biological problems for decades, if ever.

nanomyous - not sure i understand your point? it was about a decade ago. my grad school was also interviewing, so i saw most of my competition come through - roughly 4 other candidates along with me interviewed at the top schools, plus one or two others varying by school. i was the only one with no postdoc experience. this was physical chemistry, not physics, so the typical candidate characteristics may be different (in some biology fields postdocs before professorships are unusual). anyway, this isn't to say i was more than just a strong grad school performer - as i said, a significant part of the interview selection criteria seemed to be whether they wanted someone with a particular research background, so to some extent i was at the right place at the right time.

re the brain drain into finance, my perspective at the coal face of where finance work is being done doesn't really have any special perspective imo. a few points - we struggle to find people strong enough to do the work we do (even selecting from the top schools) - at least half the people we hire just can't do it. so in spite of the perception that all these smart people are flooding the field, we aren't swamped with talent. (this is at a place a bit out of the mainstream - in dc, and at a smaller boutique quant hedge fund). from a social perspective (where i claim no special expertise) my big issue is with risktaking - we so easily get the students from the top schools to interview with us because they can easily envision the career path to the top with us, whereas they can't with most of the alternatives. a job with a hedge fund is less risky to their desired career progress than the alternatives they see (how's that for an odd statement - less risk at a hedge fund?). we can talk about the screwed up financial incentives, and that's a problem to some degree (less imo than it's made out to be) but the very careerist attitudes we have drummed into the best and brightest that starts in high school and college admissions is to me closer to the root of the issue.

rp said...

apologize for the long commenting...

dawg- checked out that link and don't have an answer beyond pointing out the obvious challenges in measuring academic career success rthey faced. agree i'm speaking from anecdote. but. at the starting grad school level, the knowledge of basic physics facts isn't that important to grad school success vs analytical ability and drive, so as a measure of whether you've mastered important pre-reqs before starting a physics grad career i don't think the gre serves an important purpose. as a test of raw analytic ability, it can purport to ask the question "so, you've studied physics for 4 years, how good are you?". the test i took said i wasn't that good and as i remember surprised me with all of the facts i was supposed to know when my experience of trying to be a successful physics undergrad was all about being clever in analytical problem solving with little memorization (as opposed to the biology coursework i took).

Steve Hsu said...

RP: Thanks for the comments!

If you guys are hiring I can recommend a former student who I am pretty sure is capable of any quant/programming stuff you guys need. Shoot me an email.

Re: brain drain, the specialized training you went through just seems a very circuitous route to where you are now!

LondonYoung said...

rp - one my my objections to the modern pursuit of knowledge is the conflation of teaching disinterested undergraduates (who are getting credentialised to offets the Briggs effect ;-)) with real research. The U.S. system is successful on a comparative basis, but I think the world is being held back.

If I could have dumped academia earlier (say at 21) and jumped back after a finance career I think I could have contributed a lot more with the financial freedom.

FYI, I 100 pct agree that finding people capable of doing finance work successfully is very tough. I think firms succeed/fail based on recruting more than anything else.

Colleen said...

I find this discussion very interesting, especially when juxtaposed with the argument often made that small liberal-arts colleges should shut down. In my experience, it's the small liberal arts schools - with much smaller class sizes, few to no TAs, and extremely rigorous expectations and coursework - that are actually providing "college-level" educations (outside of the hard sciences at larger universities). (Full disclosure, I attended Centre College.) The bigger question is, of course, how the education system is going to deal with the fact that students are coming in less prepared for college level coursework than ever, universities are lowering their admissions standards in the name of 'equality of access", and professors are disciplined for failing students who very obviously cant make the grade, but whose tuition dollars are needed to support grandiose plans to hit larger student body targets than ever.

anon said...

You're sort of right LY.

At medical schools professors do not teach for the most part. There's plenty of money for medical research. I for one wouldn't pay taxes for someone to speculate about black hole entropy. So the sort who wants to do this research must steal in the form of tuition.

LondonYoung said...

"steal in the form of tuition" sounds extreme to me, but I do think there are better constructs for researching black hole entropy. An entrepreneur like Steve can do this stuff with or without the support of a state university - that support is not a make or break to him. We could ask what draws him to teach unreceptive undergrads ...

However, the same cannot be said of most "state U" faculty ...

anon said...

It is extreme, but it's the truth.

The university is a powerful institution. It has inertia.

When Bologna, Paris, and Oxbridge started Europe had no paper, a book required a dozen sheep, there was no printing, books were chained to their shelves, church authority had political consequences, etc. There was a reason for formal education.

There hasn't been a good reason for a long time.

The London external programme and the SoA, CAS, IA, etc is the way education should be.

Steve Hsu said...

Actually, I usually enjoy teaching. Contra Anon I feel that a good instructor makes a big difference in student learning -- there's actually pretty good data on this, by the way, not to mention my own anecdotal experience as a student. However, large lecture classes inject a negative, almost adversarial, ingredient into the mix: there are enough slackers, malingerers, very low conscientiousness kids, outright cheaters, etc. to create a lot of unpleasant work for the instructor. This is true even though these bad students only comprise a small percentage of the class.

anon said...

Spoken like a true out-of-touch-with-reality academic.

My experience TAing and as a student is that it is the professors who don't give a damn.

That it is their wont to blame their students shows them again to be amoral douche bags.

In an ideal world the professoriate would be put an end to Katyn massacre style.

Every second I have spent in a classroom past age 15 was a total waste of time.

At the end of every lecture I would say to myself, "Now I can go home and actually learn this."

One professor has told me that his experience was the same, but he thought that formal education did benefit less intelligent students (like Steve?).

Steve Hsu said...

Anon, it's possible that much of the time you were smarter than your instructor, and hence bored with class. A lot of smart people have the same experience.

I skipped class way too much and mostly learned on my own. On the other hand, I've been lucky to have some truly brilliant teachers (this was in college and grad school) and from those people I learned a lot. If you are lucky enough to take, e.g., abstract algebra or analysis or general relativity from a real master of the subject (who, admittedly, also has to have some pedagogical ability), you will later, perhaps as a researcher, appreciate the unique insights acquired that would otherwise have been very difficult to develop.

Here's the evidence that, for ordinary kids, the amount of learning is affected by the quality of the teacher:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material

LondonYoung said...

"" At the end of every lecture I would say to myself, "Now I can go home and actually learn this." ""

Anon - that sort of inspiration from professors seems worth more than the out-of-pocket tuition money that I imagine you actually paid. Do you disagree?

anon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
freelikebeer said...

I taught a couple of math-for-non-majors courses. My grades, in aggregate, were pretty uniformly distributed from the top to the bottom, if you get my drift. As the classes break out, I taught one class at a satellite campus, and of 13 students, I gave three A's [all three of which were high school students who get to take a class their senior year], two B's, and much, mostly worse. My other class turned out to be mostly B's and C's with a couple of A's sprinkled in.

I wouldn't trust any of them to balance my checkbook, though.

M said...

***He thinks IQ tests given to sub-Saharan Africans are meaningful.***

Well they seem to predict academic performance relatively well?

"Because the same differences are found on relatively culture-free tests, and because the tests show similar patterns of internal item consistency and predictive validity for all groups, many psychometricians have concluded that the tests are valid measures of racial differences. In Africa too IQ scores are demonstrably valid. For example, Kendall et al. [28] showed that test scores predicted school grades and job performance equally well for Africans as for non-Africans (i.e., 0.20 to 0.50). Similarly Sternberg et al.’s [61] study of Kenyan 12- to 15-year-old found that IQ scores predicted school grades with a mean r = 0.40." (page 631)

Medical Hypotheses (2008) 71, 629–640

anon said...

I don't doubt they are meaningful WITHIN Soweto or Legos, but they cannot be compared to the scores of whites in the US.

Look up the Flynn effect.

David Duke lovers like Bob have no explanation for it. They try, but it's laughable.

M said...

***Look up the Flynn effect.***

Well, presumably that would have impacted on group differences in western countries? Wicherts has written:

"This clearly contrasts with our current findings on the Flynn effect. It appears therefore that the nature of the Flynn effect is qualitatively different from the nature of B–W differences in the United States. Each comparison of groups should be investigated separately. IQ gaps between cohorts do not teach us anything about IQ gaps between contemporary groups, except that each IQ gap should not be confused with real (i.e., latent) differences in intelligence. Only after a proper analysis of measurement invariance of these IQ gaps is conducted can anything be concluded concerning true differences between groups.

Whereas implications of the Flynn effect for B–W differences appear small, the implications for
intelligence testing, in general, are large."

Wicherts, J.M., Dolan, C.V., Hessen, D.J., Oosterveld, P., Baal, G.C.M. van, Boomsma, D.I., & Span, M.M. (2004). Are intelligence tests measurement invariant over time? Investigating the nature of the Flynn effect. Intelligence, 32, 509-537

Although more recently he has suggested that scores in sub-saharan Africa may rise with development.

"The validity of the Raven’s tests among Africans needs to be studied further before these tests can be used to assess Africans’ cognitive ability in educational and professional settings. There are several reasons to expect increases in IQ levels among sub-Saharan Africans in the coming decades."

Wicherts, J. M., Dolan, C. V., Carlson, J. S., & van der Maas, H. L. J. (in press). RavenÕs test performance of sub-Saharan Africans; mean level, psychometric properties, and the Flynn Effect. Learning and Individual Differences

anon said...

The gap in BW scores is unchanged by the Flynn effect. So what?

The Flynn effect shows that environment can make a huge difference.

The way blacks live in Africa is such a huge difference.

When you see that the mean IQ of Bushmen is 50, you know that the test is invalid. Have you ever met someone with an IQ of 50? If you had you'd know that this result is bollocks.

anon said...

"it strains one's credulity that a population could long survive the rigors of the Kalahari with a true mean IQ around 55". This should not serve as a "gotcha", because I agree that the 'age' comparison is more appropriate than the 'mentally retarded' comparison for thinking about lower IQ population (such as the 16% of Af-Ams who score below 70). At the same time this also demonstrates a theoretical deficit in intelligence research of distinguishing exactly how an average child with an age unadjusted IQ of 63, a below-average non-retarded adult with an IQ of 63 and a mentally retarded adult with an IQ of 63 all differ in what are fairly considered intellectual abilities"

--- Richard Lynn

It would be incredible if Richard Lynn were not mentally retarded.

It is a gotcha.

M said...

***The gap in BW scores is unchanged by the Flynn effect. So what?

The Flynn effect shows that environment can make a huge difference.***

So based on the US experience I don't see why you expect the Flynn effect to create equal cognitive outcomes across populations. I can understand why Christian creationists would expect that, but I don't see why people who believe in evolution would expect it.

anon said...

I never said I expected the Flynn effect to equalize scores.

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